The End Of The "Female-Friendly" Workplace

To attract and retain female workers, start thinking in terms of policies and incentives for all your employees—not just the women. An overview of some low-cost, high-ROI policies that work.

Look around your office: Is it a total dudefest? For many tech companies and startups, the answer is yes—and it’s truer the higher you climb on the executive ladder. But that’s not acceptable if you want your company to thrive.

Multiple studies confirm: companies with more women in higher places meet with greater financial success. McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index (OHI), a broad-based measurement of top-performing companies, finds firms with three or more women in top positions score higher than their peers—findings supported by studies by Columbia Business School and University of Maryland, among others. Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on expanding opportunities for women in business, found a 26% boost in return on invested capital in companies with lots of women on their boards versus companies with no women.

And then there’s the "end of men." A new spate of books published this fall trumpet the new economic ascendency of women. Their arguments in brief? Male-dominated industries like manufacturing and construction have dwindled in a blizzard of pink slips, while the economy’s fastest-growing jobs—nursing, home healthcare, and service roles—and the skills necessary to succeed in the recession’s disruptive wake—collaboration, communication, flexibility—all favor women. Skeptics point out that, while women have come a long way, there’s still a long road ahead. Even so, data strongly suggest getting and keeping top female talent could be the new corporate edge.

What’s the latest smart thinking in employer policy to attract and retain female workers? We scanned the corporate landscape for low-cost, high-ROI policies that work.

Stop thinking exclusively in terms of "mommy-policies."

Increasingly, what women demand from their employers aligns with what men want, too: better work-life balance. As Hanna Rosin relates in her book The End of Men, Harvard Business Review surveys of Gen Y workers reveal both genders "want flexibility, the option to work remotely, to dip in and out of full-time, and find their work meaningful." Women have just been historically more willing than men to ditch any workplace that doesn’t meet these demands, and suffer the career fallout that may result.

"The wage gap can’t be explained just in terms of discrimination," Rosin explained in a phone interview from her home in Washington, D.C. "Women are making rational decisions to guard their personal time." Given a choice between two equivalent positions—one amply paid but featuring zero flexibility, and one less well remunerated but more flexible—more women are consciously opting for the latter. In other words, contrary to many companies’ expectations, more flexible corporate policies can actually save you big bucks in hiring costs.

Evaluate employee incentives and penalties—and be honest.

As the enduring popularity of Freakonomics suggests, employees’ choices reflect incentives and penalties. "The critical question is not whether or not [policies] actually work, but if the corporate culture accepts them," says Rosin. "Do [employees] pay a penalty for taking advantage of them?"

"I’ve moved away from the idea of better maternity leave to supporting more generous childcare" in the workplace, Rosin continues. "Just focusing on maternity leave targets women too much…and promotes the idea that women are exclusively responsible for childcare." In her controversial article for The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can’t Have it All," Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter explains how her employer removed the mommy-stigma in their parental leave policy for junior professors. In a policy dating to the 1970s, pre-tenure female professors were offered a voluntary extra year on their tenure clocks with the birth of a child; only 3% took advantage of the perk. When in 2005 Princeton extended the tenure-clock for all junior professors with new children automatically, the policy rapidly lost its stigma and became normalized. The moral: employers should think less in terms of mom-specific perks that other employees might resent as special treatment, and instead roll out policies that recognize all employees’ need to balance work-life demands.

Other penalties are unspoken, embedded in corporate culture, and correspondingly more difficult to dislodge. In her book, Rosin cites women’s hesitancy to negotiate higher pay, and how even a slightly lower starting salary can compound significantly over a career. The lesson for CEOs: lead by example. Senior execs who actively use policies like flex-time or telecommuting and encourage their direct reports to do the same signal to rank-and-file employees that there’s nothing to fear by following suit.

Flex-time costs employers nothing—and it’s surprisingly effective.

Which policies top the list to retain talent? Flexible hours, telecommuting, and job-sharing are all low-cost, high-ROI options. In 2006 Best Buy rolled out Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), a then-radical flex-time policy allowing all their employees to choose where, how and when they worked, provided their performance results justify their means of achieving them. Checking the program’s results in 2011, two University of Minnesota researchers found ROWE reduced employee turnover at the corporate headquarters by 45%, while boosting productivity.

Elisa All is also a flex-time fan. A serial media entrepreneur and mother of three based in Chicago, All is the founder of 30Second Mobile, whose flagship product 30SecondMom delivers mobile content to time-strapped mothers. She sold her previous venture iParenting Media to Disney in 2007. "While it's fine to generally have an office policy of 9-5, most women want to know that if they have to be late or leave early to take care of kids, aging parents, et cetera, that you're OK with it," she explained in an email. "Not only will they make up the time, they usually will work harder because they're grateful for your understanding."

All encourages employees and her virtual network of content contributors to use any and all technologies to bring them closer together. "Whether just once in a while or permanently, telecommuting allows women to work from anywhere at any time (such as after kids are asleep)," All continued. "I have had many virtual employees over the years who have gone above and beyond for me. You'd never know they didn't work alongside me in the office—they were always ‘there’. Being flexible goes a long way toward gaining their loyalty."

Another low-cost benefit that bolsters flexible work hours is flexible childcare. How can corporate childcare ever qualify as cheap? Chicago-based Sittercity offers SelectPlus, a program in which employers pay Sittercity’s annual subscription cost of $70/year. Employees can then access Sittercity to find qualified, pre-screened childcare, senior care, pet-sitting or housekeeping help (which they pay for themselves) to meet their changing needs.

"Flexibility in your work schedule causes the need for more flexible childcare," says Melissa Anderson, senior vice president of Sittercity. Started in 2008, the program now includes 500 employers, including MasterCard, AOL, Sanofi US and the University of California. "We see use cases for employees who are traveling, working late, up against a deadline," Anderson continues—not to mention coverage during snow days, a child’s sickness, or other everyday calamities. Sittercity measures reductions in employee absenteeism for each employer in real-time and claims, on average, employees work an additional 10 hours a month thanks to Sittercity access.

Job-sharing is more doable than employers may realize.

Rosin’s book details the recent uptick in women pharmacists, veterinarians, and pediatricians—all high-paying fields where job-sharing and predictable work schedules have become the norm. "Women don’t just become pediatricians because they love children. They love that you can schedule [medical] procedures, so you know when you do and don’t need to be there," says Rosin. Similarly, pharmacists working for large chains like Walgreens renders them "more interchangeable with each other, so it’s very possible to do job-sharing successfully." Studies by Goldin and Katz among others reveal a virtuous-circle dynamic between employees seeking these flexibilities and employers changing in response, attracting more women as a result.

Ask your top employees what they need to succeed.

What your employees really want can be surprisingly tough to uncover. Rosin’s book tells an instructive story from Marissa Mayer, then Google’s highest-ranking female developer, now the CEO of Yahoo! Noticing one of her top reports, Katy, seemed on the verge of burnout, Mayer called Katy into her office and asked her to think hard about what little changes would make her demanding job less stressful. Mayer guessed Katy would push back on 1 a.m. conference calls, but in fact Katy’s request was even simpler: she hated how company meetings ran long and make her late for her kids’ events. "Mayer had it wrong as to why this woman was discontented," Rosin said. "She didn’t have kids at the time and just figured it was generic tiredness. But it turns out Katy’s problem wasn’t that hard to solve."

The fear of penalties—whether overt and implied—tend to shut employees up about what policies truly cramp their style. So don’t expect your employees will volunteer this stuff freely. Instead bosses may need to dig—and, once they’ve uncovered simple requests like Katy’s, they should consider extending that privilege to all employees, contingent on job performance.

Rosin believes openness will take us a long way towards achieving work-life balance, for women and men. "That’s the weird thing about America: we act surprised by the fact that you have to take kids to the doctor. Really?" says Rosin. Her advice to senior female execs: "Become an advocate for honesty: never lie to your employer if you’re taking your kid to the doctor. That helps normalize it."

What policies has your company put in place to attract and retain not just women—but the best talent in general? Tell us about it in the comments.

[Image: Playful Fight via Shutterstock]

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